Friday, October 23, 2015

The Audio File: Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons and Cast of Wonders

Guest post by Sam McDonald.

We're gonna do something a little different in this edition of The Audio File. I'm bring you not one, not two, but three podcasts worth of great stories. We've reached the point where I'll be reviewing multiple podcast in each post much like I do over at Amazing Stories. Let's meet the podcast featured in this edition, shall we?

The first podcast we've got is Clarkesworld Magazine. Founded in 2006 by Neil Clarke, this magazine has won or been nominated for pretty much ever speculative fiction award out there. Almost all of Clarkesworld's stories are narrated by Kate Baker. The second podcast we'll be see is Strange Horizons.  It was founded in 2000 by Mary Anne Mohanraj and has since been led by editors such as Susan Marie Gropp and Niall Harrison. It has also won many awards and its stories are narrated by Anaea Lay. Not the most exciting descriptions, but as you'll see they both definitely have their merits.

The final podcast we'll be looking at is Cast of Wonders. It was founded in 2011 by Graeme Dunlop and Barry J. North. Cast of Wonders is a young adult podcast featuring stories of the fantastic, by which I mean science fiction, fantasy and everything else in-between. I can best describe Cast of Wonders as "Escape Artists Jr." due to how closely its crew works with the producers and narrators of the three Escape Artists Podcasts. Cast of Wonders features narrators from all walks of life and is currently helmed by Marguerite Kenner. It has also received multiple Parsec Awards, one of the highest honors in speculative fiction podcasting. They always make a point of personally responding to all their submission, even the ones they reject, to help upcoming writers grow.

Well, I think that covers intros. So, without further delay, settle in and let's begin...

Gold Mountain by Chris Roberson
Narrated by Kate Baker
Originally Published in Postscripts

This story is part of Chris Roberson's Celestial Empire series. It's set in a world where China kept its treasure fleet and went on to conquer most of the world. The bits of the world not under Chinese control or influence are part of the Aztec Empire. The story follows Johnston Lien, a woman whose grandparents immigrated to China from Vinland. She's visiting the city of Guangdong to research the construction of Gold Mountain, the world's first space elevator. To that end she's interviewing McAllister James, one of the original workers on Gold Mountain.

Okay, that description seriously sells this story short, but I don't want to give too much away. First a word on names; the names are rendered in the East Asian style of family name first and given name second. Now that we've got that out of the way, let's talk plot. McAllister tell of the absolutely inhuman conditions he and his fellow Vinlanders were subjected to by their Chinese employers. Not only that, but he also speaks of the considerable prejudice and bigotry they faced while trying to make better lives for themselves. The really sad part is, barring a few science fiction related bits, all of that really happened, but in our world it was the other way around.

For that matter, it is best to think of this story as a mirror image of our own world. Chris has said that this was what he intended, and he hopes that the story gives readers new appreciation of the trials and tribulations of immigrants throughout history. He has more than succeeded in that regard. Even in the darkness there a glimmers of hope, such as Johnston, that show that the Vinlanders have been able to survive and even thrive despite the odds. This was my first exposure to the Celestial Empire series, which grew out of the Sidewise award winning short story "O One", and I can't wait to find more.

This story is mostly told from a male perspective, but Kate still manages to pack quite the emotional punch nonetheless. It's an alternate history take on the immigrant’s tale that will keep you thinking. Very much recommended.

Fade to White by Catherynne M. Valente
Narrated by Kate Baker
Nominee for the Nebula, Hugo and Sidewise Awards

This story takes place in either the 1950s or 1960s after a nuclear war occurred in the late 1940s or early 1950s. It's unclear who fired the first shot, or who exactly the United States was fighting, but frankly it's kind of unimportant. What is important is that the world has become severely irradiated and society has been forever changed. The story is told from the point of view of a girl named Sylvie and a boy named Martin who are about to come of age. As part of this process they, and everyone else their age, will be tested for fertility. Failing this test has potentially dire consequences.

Another summary that doesn't do nearly enough justice, so let me elaborate. You know that war I mentioned? Well it's going on, and men who flunk the fertility test get conscripted into it. The fertility test itself has some potentially eugenic undertones, as blacks and Asians are automatically disqualified. Polyandry has become necessary to keep society together due to all the men who've died in the war and the general fertility crisis. Throughout the story we get glimpses of the various advertising campaigns used by the government to distract people from how terrible the world is.

Wow, this was a powerful story. You really get the sense that this isn't just a world that's dying, but a world that is potentially on its way out. Some of the most poignant moments were the little bits of off-hand information. For example, it's mentioned that there are more Japanese in Utah than in Japan. This story is a nice example of atompunk. What is atompunk you ask? Atompunk is anything set in the future as envisioned by the 1950s, but with a more cynical twist. It's closely related to Raygun Gothic, but that tends to be more idealistic. To give one example, Fallout is atompunk, while Buck Rodgers and The Jetsons are Raygun Gothic.

The general feel of this story can best be described as an atompunk take on The Day After or Threads. Like I've mentioned before, the world building in this story is absolutely breathtaking. What's also breathtaking is how well Kate's narration captured the emotions of this story. Given how many award nominations it received, and more than earned, do I really need to tell you I recommend it?

England Under the White Witch by Theodora Goss
Narrated by Kate Baker
Featured in The Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2013

In this story 1940s England is invaded and conquered by an ethereal empress who commands power over ice and snow. At first it seems that things will be just fine, but it soon becomes apparent that England may never see spring again. Resistance groups pop up, but they face considerable challenges from the empress' wolves, secret police and even certain trees.

There are probably some of you scratching your heads wondering how this story exists. As long as the words Aslan, Narnia and Pevensie never appear in the story then no copyrights or trademarks have been violated. Since they don't...well, there you go. Personally, I think it worked out better for not having a group of meddling kids and their lion god swoop in to save the day. It was much more effective to leave the fate of this frozen world undetermined.

The imagery and descriptions are absolutely stunning. This story can very much be viewed as an allegory for what it's like to live under a dictatorship. There's initially new opportunities for the disenfranchised, a cult of personality, rewriting of history and the arts, secret police and other totalitarian staples all with a magical twist to them. For the third time in a row we have a great Kate Baker narration with this story.  

It's a powerful story about magical totalitarianism that you won't want to miss.

A Sweet Calling by Tony Pi
Narrated by Kate Baker

This story is set in Ancient China and follows a candyman named Tangren Ao. He has the power to project his consciousness into the candy animals he crafts by calling upon the legendary animals of the Chinese Zodiac. He soon finds himself having to play detective after his friend Lun gets framed for a fire monkey attack in the market place.

I was always fascinated by the Chinese Zodiac when I was a kid, which can probably be blamed by my obsession with the Jackie Chan Adventures series. As such this story had a certain appeal to me. It was a nice touch that the main character preformed magic through candy. I guess you could say he was a...candymancer. Huh, huh? Okay, back to the review. I liked how the system of magic was described as well as the way the spirits were written. Tony is definitely a writer I'll keep an eye out for in the future.

It's short, sweet and to the point. I recommend it.

A Gift in Time by Maggie Clark
Narrated by Kate Baker

This story follows a man named Mouse who has the ability to travel through time. He's been trying to win the affections of a rich fellow named Ezra Levitz, who has a fascination with the past. Mouse is determined to use his power to win Ezra's affection.

Yeah, not the best summary, but it is a great story. Clarkesworld typically doesn't accept very many time travel stories, so when they do it's almost guaranteed to be good. I liked how Mouse had to keep trying because everything he brings to Ezra looks so recently made it comes off as a forgery. It was also interesting how most of Mouse's time travel investments failed because the banks he used failed. At times it felt like the story was commenting on such get-rich-quick type stories.

The times Mouse visits were all great, though when he went to the Thirty Years War and encountered Count Tilly my initial thought was "it's the guy from the 1632 series!" Yeah, I gotta put more actual history into my reading rotation. It was also nice to see another homosexual romance represented among the stories.

A story about love and time travel. I happily recommend it.

Manifest Destiny by Joe Haldeman
Narrated by Kate Baker
Originally Published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

This story is set during the days of the Mexican-American War and follows three Americans from various walks of life who become spies for Mexico. They'll be granted land and Mexican citizenship if all goes well after the war. However things don't go quite as they planned.

This story is historical fantasy, but of a decidedly magical realism variety. There are a few blink-and-you'll-miss-it hints of fantastic goings on, but for the most part it reads more like a historical fiction short story. Perhaps the magical realism is fitting, given that the story does take place primarily in Latin America. You really don't see to many stories set during the Mexican-American War, so this story was a rather refreshing change of pace. Then again, most American History textbooks spend, at most, a paragraph or two on the entire war, but I digress.

Many of the characters have sympathetic motivations for their action, and I liked how the story touched on some of the injustices and inequalities going on in America at the time. If you're a fan of Westerns you should enjoy this story. A story about an often neglected historical era. Very much recommended.

Rolling Steel: Pre-Apocalyptic Love Story by Jay Lake and Shannon Page
Narrated by Shaun Farrell and Mur Lafferty

This story is set in a world where the United States and Canada fell apart in the 1930s and 1940s due to technocracy movements. By the present day the many fractured nations of North America are entangled in multiple wars. The story follows a man and a woman who are traveling and doing their part for the wars.

Yeah, this one didn't really do it for me. The first problem I had was that the alternate history elements were really more for backdrop than any particular relevance to the story. Actually, it didn't even fell like even that much. This story could easily have been set in the near future and it wouldn't have made any difference to the plot. The other main reason was that, well, I didn't feel the characters were very engaging. That's not to say I thought the story was particularly bad, just that it wasn't very engaging to me.

Shaun and Mur do a pretty good job with the narration, but not enough to make up for the lackluster story. This story was from the early day when Clarkesworld hadn't quite found its footing and before Kate took over the narration. I didn't care for this one, but maybe it'll be more appealing to you. It's at the very least worth checking out.

The Long Haul by Ken Liu
Narrated by Kate Baker
2014 Sidewise Award Winner

Matt has tagged this story as one he wants to review, and I'm not going to take that from him. I will, however, make a few brief comments. I have to admit I was a bit surprised when I saw this story on the list of Sidewise Award nominees. Not because I doubted the story had potential, but because it didn't strike me as an alternate history story, but rather a near future story. Looking back over it, however, there are a few minor divergences from our history that allowed for airships to survive, but they're so subtle you can easily miss them if you aren't looking for them.

As with most Ken Liu stories I loved this one quite a bit. It really goes without saying that I give it a strong recommendation.

The Lucky Strike by Kim Stanley Robinson
Narrated by Anaea Lay
Originally Published in Universe 14
Hugo and Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novella

This story takes place in 1945 just before the atomic bombings of Japan. The Enola Gay has exploded during a test flight and so a new crew has had to be selected for the critical mission. Frank January, the mission's pilot, isn't sure he's willing to unleash such a destructive force upon innocent civilians. What consequences will his actions have?

Minor spoiler, in case it wasn't obvious, January intentionally misses and the story covers the fallout from his actions. Stories dealing with the atomic bombings of Japan are always a bit of a balancing act, and Kim does a good job handling the potentially touchy subject matter. The writing in this story is absolutely top notch. This is certainly a story that will keep you thinking for a long time. I can't give too much more away without spoiling this story for you, but I can say that it certainly earned its Hugo and Nebula nominations.

A great alternate history from Kim Stanley Robinson. Very much recommended.

The Suitcase Aria by Marissa Lingen
Narrated by Anaea Lay

This story is set in 1780 Berlin and follows a young opera singer named Udo. He is a castrato with the ability to perform magic through his songs. He's going to need all the song he can manage to handle the nix that's been harassing the opera house.

So a few terms we ought to cover before moving forwards. A nix is a type of Germanic water spirit. A castrato is a type of high pitched opera singer, and in the past they typically consisted of boys who were castrated before reaching puberty. A suitcase aria is a song that would be sung by a traveling opera singer. Now that we've got that out of the way let's talk about the story.

It's often said that music is a kind of magic, and this story just took that one step further. It was a nicely constructed system of magic. I personally would have liked to have heard a bit of singing with this story, but at the same time I can understand that this would be hard to translate into text. Also, hats off for using an obscure mythological creature rather than something more obvious like a siren.

A story about the magic of music and those who make it. Well worth your time.

Rib by Yukimi Ogawa
Narrated by Anaea Lay

This story takes place in Japan during the Tokugawa Shogunate and follows a skeleton woman who feeds on men's souls. She's recently found herself caring for a young boy named Kiichi. Together they're teaming up to steal back a hair stick that belonged to Kiichi's mother from a heavily guarded temple.

There's a bit more to this story, you'll have to read/listen to find out more. I really loved how snarky and sarcastic the skeleton woman's dialogue was. As you should know by now, I am always eager to learn about new mythological beings, and so it was with this story. It was also nice to see a story set in Tokugawa Japan that was about something other than samurai. Without giving much away I can tell you that the ending is really heartwarming. As for why this story is titled Rib, well, you'll just have to find that out for yourself.

A fun little story with a touching ending. I happily recommend it.

Kulturkampf by Anatoly Belilovsky
Narrated by Hans Fenstermacher
A Cast of Wonders Original

This story takes place during a steampunk version of the Franco-Prussian War where musical symphonies are used a weapons of war. The story told as a series of letters sent by Richard Wagner as he creates symphonies as his contribution to the Prussian war effort.

Every year the staff of Cast of Wonders each select a story they feel was particularly worthy of praise. This story was Barry J. North's pick for 2013, and I can easily see why. It was a great touch to play bits of Wagner's symphonies as the story was read. They really do sound like they could be used as weapons of war. I haven't seen too many stories about the Franco-Prussian war, and this was a nice change of pace from the typical Victorian Britain setting of many steampunk stories.

As for the narration, I thought Han's did an excellent job. It's a great musical steampunk story you won't want to miss.

The Haunted Jalopy Races by M. Bennardo
Narrated by Alasdair Stuart
A Cast of Wonders Original

This story is set in a small American town during World War II and follows the yearly race of the spirits of two teenage boys who died in a racing accident. Each year they grow into increasingly caricatured versions of who they were in life; the hero is practically a knight in shining armor and the villain has a flaming skull. But is the story really all that it seems?

What I liked most about this story is the way it deals with how we collectively handle death. All too often we remember idealized versions of who the deceased were rather than who they actually were in life. That's why I personally oppose the notion of never speaking ill of the dead. This story really did a great job of commenting on that sort of mentality by introducing a supernatural spin.

In terms of narration I thought that Alasdair did a great job. A story about how we remember the dead. Very much recommended.

Above Decks by Terry Ibele
Narrated by Phil Lunt
A Cast of Wonders Original

This story takes place in a steampunk version of Canada and follows a boy from Rupert's Land who works on an airship. He joined thinking it would be a life of adventure and sightseeing, but he spends most of his days shoveling coal below deck. One day, however, he decides to break free.

Okay, so this is a steampunk story with an airship, but I promise it's a good one. I liked how this story focused on the potentially less than glamorous aspects of steampunk and the Victorian era. It was also a nice touch the upper classes considered mechanical augmentation to be fashionable. Towards the end of the story, even despite all of the horrors, you get a sense of awe and wonder for how amazing airships must have been. On the other hand, you get a long look at 19th century labor conditions as well.

Overall Phil did a good job with the narration, though at time he made the captain sound a bit like Yosemite Sam. All in all a pretty good story that's worth your time.

Conclusion

So we've reached the end of the list and I hope you've had a good time. Before we go I've got a few announcements to make about podcasts. The first big announcement is that, starting next year, Cast of Wonders will be joining Escape Artists as their fourth podcast. This will make them the first pro-paying magazine for YA fiction. It is truly great to see the Escape Artists family adopt such a deserving podcast into their ranks.

The second big announcement, have you been enjoying the podcasts I've featured? Do you love them so much you wish you could own physical copies or maybe even a t-shirt or two? If you answer yes you should check out poddisc.com where you can purchase CDs containing episodes from Escape Pod, Pseudopod, PodCastle and The Drabblecast as well as t-shirt of the shows.

Well, I'll see you next time gang. Until then, stay strange.

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Sam McDonald is a college student from Shreveport, LA.  When not involved with his studies he can be found blogging on Amazing Stories, making and posting maps across the web and working on short stories that he hopes to have published in magazines such as Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and the Escape Artists Podcasts.

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